Culture 18 November 2019
It's stating the obvious to point out that women get a bum rap.
We have, for virtually all of recorded history, been treated as frivolous, inconsistent, vain, foolish, or at best cannily deceptive. Entire bodies of literature are devoted to our malignancy, unpredictability, secretiveness, and childishness, painting a picture of a kind of person no one would want to be. In contrast, of course, to all the virtues of men; "virtue" itself derives from the Latin for "man." Perhaps, then, we shouldn't be terribly surprised at how we're spoken of when the language itself treats masculinity as identical to moral worth.
Concurrently, women who want to succeed in a man's world are advised to act, well, like men. We are too emotional, we're told, to be rational; if we want to command respect, we must shed that. We are too willing to compromise; we ought to stand our ground. We are weak; we must be tough, and constant; we are passive-aggressive where naked aggression is superior.
Femininity is weakness. Masculinity is strength.
The last few years, however, have brought a new mainstream acknowledgement of the counterargument through the rise, first in social media and later percolating up to the larger culture, of the term toxic masculinity. It encompasses a wide range of traditionally "masculine" behaviors broadly boiling down to suppressing emotion as a sign of weakness and using violence or the threat of violence as both an assertion of masculinity and a response to it being challenged.
In other words, we're at a place where the traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity as rational and strong versus emotional and weak are being called into question in the larger culture outside academia for the first time. And going right along with that is questioning the value of the traits we have historically valued. Perhaps "hardness," inevitable double entendre aside, isn't the virtue we've been led to believe it is. Perhaps, in fact, it's very much the opposite, and that far from women needing to embrace the public-facing toxicity of maleness – the fear of weakness, vulnerability, feeling, and compassion – men need to take a long hard look at what theologians used to call the "feminine virtues," because I think their stark separation from them is detrimental to men and women alike, fueling cycles of discrimination and abuse that have perpetuated themselves across human history.
It cannot be healthy for men to be starved from touch and emotional intimacy to such a degree that their only source for either is their wives, fomenting possessiveness and violence when that intimacy is denied. It cannot be healthy for men to feel obliged to project toughness, superiority, and dominance. It cannot be healthy to vilify gentleness, or compassion, or empathy, or kindness, or sympathy, or understanding, or compromise, or humility, or affection, or care. Yet all of these, a vast swathe of genuine human experience, are vilified and structurally denied to men unless accompanied by a degree of embarrassment and shame. That is toxic masculinity.
I keep thinking about the phenomenal, billion-dollar success of Oprah Winfrey, who built her empire first and foremost on meeting the emotional needs of her audience. She has, for decades, crafted a niche almost unknown to American culture beforehand: someone who gave voice to women's concerns without dumbing them down or condescending. And as her success grew, we saw in the male-dominated public sphere an increasingly mocking tone in discussion of her; first, laughing at her struggles with weight loss (a stereotypically female concern that she took seriously and discussed frankly), and advancing to mocking the emotional concern she demonstrated for her audience as "therapeutic deism," where "therapeutic" itself – the very idea of taking care of your mental and emotional health – denotes nothing but touchy-feely nonsense that makes you feel good but lacks the hardness of truth. The massive success she's received for meeting this fundamental need, taking women seriously in the process, is itself only evidence of the gullibility of an audience more eager to be told "I'm okay, you're okay" than to confront reality.
Which, even on its face, is massively dismissive, not only of women as a class, but of the very act of taking your emotional life seriously. Men are quick to do that, almost sneering at the word "feelings;" in fact, much of the informal discourse surrounding the discussion of gender relations infantilizes them as "fee-fees." And all that does is reduce emotional life as something not only optional, but demeaning of the subject. Feelings diminish men because feelings are womanly. And we all know how terrified men are of being even remotely womanly.
That underlines the essential fragility of masculinity, a concept theoretically founded on strength and resilience. Representing perfection, it is constantly under threat, weakened by exposure to femininity. If any embrace of "femininity" is demeaning, then that cuts off by fear of censure everything that goes with it, from emotional intimacy to hugging your friends and even to things as simple as self-grooming, lest we forget the "metrosexual," where taking care of your appearance was equated with effeminacy and by extension, homosexuality. Men are amputating critical emotional and social limbs because they don't want anyone to think they're gay.
But "womanly" doesn't need to be a mark against anyone. Women outperform men in ways we might find surprising: we earn more degrees, including at the doctoral level, and we are as a class superlative leaders according to Harvard Business Review, which published a study measuring leadership attributes back in June. There is something in the experience of being a woman that makes us more likely to be motivational, collaborative, supportive, self-improving, and results-oriented, and it's not hard to see why. We are so undervalued and demeaned that we strive to outperform; we are taught from a young age to concern ourselves with the needs of others and compromise, which makes us more likely to be experienced with consensus-building and teamwork; we are told we are inadequate so we are more likely to strive to improve ourselves. In other words, the very traits for which we are held in contempt are traits that make us especially capable in the most male-dominated sphere of all: corporate leadership.
There is a necessary humility in being a woman that comes from our ongoing position at the bottom rung of society. We know, in ways men don't seem to, that we are subject to the whims of others; we know, in ways men simply can't, what it's like to be tossed aside and dismissed. In the best of us, it fuels a desperate ambition that unlocks our vast and untapped potential.
So come on, guys. Embrace your feminine side. You'll find out that it enriches your manhood, and not the other way around. If we can learn to be hard, you can learn to be soft.
You'll be better (and happier) for it.
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In 2020, as the world turned on its axis, we all held on for dear life. Businesses, non-profits, government organizations, and entrepreneurs all braced for a new normal, not sure what it would mean, what would come next, or if we should be excited or terrified.
At the same time that everything is shifting, being put on hold, or expanding, companies have to evaluate current talent needs, empower their teams to work from home, discover new ways to care for clients from a distance, and navigate new levels of uncertainty in this unfamiliar environment. Through it all, civilians are being encouraged to lean into concepts like "resilience" and "courage" and "commitment," sometimes for the first time.
Let's contrast what the business community is going through this year with the common experience of the military. During basic training, officer candidate school, multiple deployments, combat, and reintegration, veterans become well-versed in resilience, courage, and commitment to survive and thrive in completing their mission. Today, veterans working in the civilian sector find the uncertainty, chaos, instability, and fear threading through companies eerily familiar.
These individuals do not leave their passion and sense of service behind when they separate or retire out of the military. Instead, typically veterans continue to find avenues to serve — in their teams, their companies, their communities.
More than ever before, today's employers who employ prior military should focus on why and how to retain them and leverage their talents, experience, and character traits to help lead the company — and the employees — to the other side of uncertainty.
What makes veterans valuable employees
Informed employers recognize that someone with a military background brings certain high-value assets into the civilian sector. Notably, veterans were taught, trained, and grounded in certain principles that make them uniquely valuable to their employers, particularly given the current business environment, including:
It's been said that the United States Armed Forces is the greatest leadership institution in the world. The practices, beliefs, values, and dedication of those who serve make them tested leaders even outside of the military. Given the opportunity to lead, a veteran will step forward and assume the role. Asked to respect and support leadership, they comply with that position as well. Leadership is in the veteran's blood and for a company that seeks employees with the confidence and commitment to lead if called upon, a veteran is the ideal choice.
The hope is that all employees are committed to their job and give 100% each day. For someone in the military, this is non-negotiable. The success of the mission, and the lives of everyone around them, depend on their commitment to stay the course and perform their job as trained. When the veteran employee takes on a project, it will be completed. When the veteran employee says there's an unsurmountable obstacle, it is so (not an excuse). When a veteran says they're "all in" on an initiative, they will see it through.
Strategy, planning, and improv
Every mission involves strategy, planning, and then improvisation from multiple individuals. On the battlefield, no plan works perfectly, and the service member's ability to flex, pivot, and adapt makes them valuable later, in the civilian sector. Imagine living in countries where you don't speak the language, working alongside troops who come from places you can't find on a map, and having to communicate what needs to get done to ensure everyone's safety. Veterans learned how to set goals, problem-solve challenges, and successfully get results.
With an all-volunteer military for decades now, every man and woman who wore our nation's uniform raised their hand to do so. They chose to serve their country, their fellow Americans, and their leaders. These individuals do not leave their passion and sense of service behind when they separate or retire out of the military. Instead, typically veterans continue to find avenues to serve — in their teams, their companies, their communities.
When companies seek out leaders who will commit to a bigger mission, can think strategically and creatively, and will serve others, they look to veterans.
Best practices in retention of veteran talent
Retention starts at hiring. The experience set out in the interview stage provides insight about how it will be to work and grow within the team at the company. For employers hiring veterans, this is a critical step.
Veterans often tell me that they "look to work for a company that has a set of values I can ascribe to." The topic of values can serve as an opportunity for companies seeking to retain military talent.
The veteran employee may have had a few — or several — jobs since leaving the military. Or this may be their first civilian work experience. In any case, setting expectations and being clear about goals is vital. Remember, veterans are trained to complete a mission and a goal. When an employer clarifies the mission and shows how the veteran employee's role supports and fulfills that mission, the employee can more confidently and successfully complete their work.
Additionally, regular check-ins are helpful with veteran employees. These employees may not be as comfortable asking for help or revealing their weaknesses. When the employer checks in regularly, and shows genuine interest in their happiness, sense of productivity, and overall job satisfaction, the veteran employee learns to be more comfortable asking for help when needed.
The military is a values-driven culture. Service members are instilled with values of loyalty, integrity, service, duty, and honor, to name a few. When they transition out of the military, veterans still seek a commitment to values in their employers. Veterans often tell me that they "look to work for a company that has a set of values I can ascribe to." The topic of values can serve as an opportunity for companies seeking to retain military talent. Make it clear what your values are, how you live and act on those values, and how the veteran's job will promote and support those values. Even work that is less glamorous can be attractive to a veteran if they understand the greater purpose and mission.
Today, veterans working in the civilian sector find the uncertainty, chaos, instability, and fear threading through companies eerily familiar.
Finally, leveraging the strengths and goals of any employee is critical, and particularly so with veterans. If you have an employee who is passionate about service, show them ways to give back — through mentoring, community engagement, volunteerism, etc. If your veteran continues to seek leadership roles, find opportunities for them to contribute at higher levels, even informally. When your veteran employee offers to reframe the team's mission to gain better alignment across the sector, give them some runway to experiment. You have a workforce that is trained and passionate about and skilled in adapting and overcoming. Let them do what they do best.